Saturday, November 20, 2010


"what ARE you?"

"go ahead and guess; i kind of like this game."

"are you (insert brown ethnicity here)?"
only one person has ever been close to being right. most people just assume one of the "usual suspects" of brownness: hispanic or latina, Indian, Mexican, Spanish, Middle Eastern, Native American. some of the more interesting / out of the blue assumptions were Somalian (which is actually sort of close), Venezuelan (really?), Egyptian (this was when I had cleopatra-style bangs), black in general, Ethiopian, Brazilian...I've gotten pretty much every ethnicity with traditionally dark skin.

when i went to (finally!) register for a library card at the Denver Public Library today, the woman behind the desk asked what I was. she had a slight Middle Eastern accent and was also brown, so I thought maybe she'd get close, or at least have a more creative definition of my brownness. Nope. we played the "what ethnicity do YOU think i am?" game, and her answer was the typical "I'd say either Spanish/Latina or Indian."

this question happens almost every day. whenever i meet someone new, they'll ask "so what ARE you, anyway?" (either right away or eventually work up to it.)
when i was younger, my friends were one or the other. mostly one, since i grew up in a very white Roman Catholic college town. i had one friend whose mom was euro-white and her dad was Seneca...but she mostly only claimed the Native side of her background. i don't think she had the words to claim both.

i grew up with two white-skinned older brothers, one very fair white-skinned mom, and one very dark-skinned dad. everyone but my dad and i presented as very white, and while my dark skin was a cute novelty for everyone to comment on (and a really big tease in the hope that my mom wasn't my biological mother), i was treated as the anomaly among my whiter siblings and praised for looking "exotic." but even with that, i was always assured that i was white. that i should check that box in whatever school or camp forms i had to fill out.

my first act of advocacy came when i was in 4th or 5th grade. a very pretty older girl (blond hair, blue eyes, lived in the rich part of my neighborhood) on Bus 7 yelled at me on the ride home one day and told me to move, that she didn't want a "black bitch" to be sitting with her little sister.
i got home and stood at the kitchen counter and penned a letter to the principal, explaining what had happened and that i wasn't offended at being called black, although i wasn't, but that i was hurt by being called a bitch. i'm pretty sure i suggested our elementary school get some racial sensitivity training. (i was a little precocious, for a 9-10 year old.)
i was proud of myself for standing up against racism, and my parents were too, but i was confused. i was white, i thought. why would she call me black? i had tanning contests with my dad every summer, so he and i were both sporting our summer shades of dark brown, but I didn't think that negated the "Caucasian" i'd always been told i was, the "white" box I always checked at school. I'd never questioned it. until that day.

i always identified with the racial oppression we learned about in school and read about in history books, but i then felt guilty for identifying with it. what right did i have? i was white. just because i was dark-skinned didn't mean i had the right to claim racial oppression. that doesn't happen to white people. and i was white. ....right?

in high school, i started occasionally checking the "other" box when forced to check a box. when i could, i just left it blank. i had no idea what i was. i didn't feel white. i didn't look like the white kids in my school. i looked more like the puerto rican kids in the neighboring town, but i didn't get it.

finally, in my first women's studies class, i learned about white privilege. some things started to click in my brain: when i gave my ethnicity (at least, the one that's acceptable to discuss), i was European. but everyday people didn't encounter me as European. they encountered me as brown. after 9/11, my dad and i would routinely get stopped when we crossed the border into Canada. not because we lacked proper documentation (though my dad did once, and told the border patrol agent he was a "world citizen," and we were stuck there for 3 hours. thanks dad.), but because our skin is what i half-jokingly call terrorist-brown. add to that my dad's very middle eastern features and mustache, and nobody would ever assume he was white. and nobody ever assumed i was white. any and every variation on brown, yes. but never white. neither of us has ever been afforded the privilege of being white. it stopped making sense to try so desperately to claim white privilege when i couldn't actually access it.
i made the conscious choice to stop checking the box that said "white." from then on, it would be "mixed" or "other."

but i didn't even see people who identified as mixed-race or interracial until my junior or senior year of college, when I encountered a (now-defunct, i think?) group at Smith: MISC. i don't remember what the exact acronym stood for, but it was something along the lines of multi-ethnic & interracial students of smith college. MISC. that felt about right. miscellaneous. ambiguous. yep.

and then i graduated to the real world, and entered repro justice nonprofitworld. and i became the token brown girl. (and the token gay girl. i'm a two-fer! diversity people LOVE me.) nobody really bothered to figure out what kind of brown i was, but they knew i was brown, and so the racial sensitivity work was up to me. as a lowly entry-level employee, it was up to me to tell my supervisor that her supervisor had said something not-quite-right about outreach to Latina/o communities. as a new employee, it was up to me to explain to my directors why it mattered for us to take a position on a ballot measure that disproportionately affected undocumented immigrants. the organizations i've worked for have been on the right track, and are making huge strides to improve, but i'm still the brown girl in the historically white-rich-lady organization.

it's exhausting. i mean, i love being that voice and feeling as though i'm finally using that annoyingly ambiguous ethnicity for good, but...christ. it's exhausting.
and i still feel guilty sometimes. like i'm claiming something that's not mine. like i'm claiming oppression that i don't have a rightful claim to. because, sure, i've been treated similarly to other "legitimately" brown girls, but on paper, i'm still white. mostly. I'm just a whole lot of European (mom's side: French, northern Italian, English, German-Jewish, dad's side: Sicilian and English). It's the Sicilian that gives me my dark skin, and it turns out the dark skin is from some illicit/not-talked-about "fraternizing" with East African ancestors wayyy back, but on paper, it's still just Sicilian.

so i've decided on a new term, one coined (or at least adopted) by my mixed friend, Daniel (who, btw, is Japanese and Hawai'ian and Argentinian).

ambiguously ethnic.
brown, but ambiguously so.
another one that works: mix-y.

as it turns out, there's a not-insignificant population of mixy, ambi-ethnic, mixed, interracial, etc people out there. lots in my generation, and lots more growing up now, now that mixed-race couples are just an everyday couple. (sign of my age: it's just weird and unimaginable to me that people would have had a problem with that.)

among that not-insignificant population:
-this book that i just grabbed from the library: What ARE You? Voices of Mixed-Race Young People, a book/anthology by Pearl Fuyo Gaskins
-Dr. Maria Root's brilliant Bill Of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage (pdf)
-a friend i made during my summer in DC who's now doing amazing things out somewhere on the west coast: mirasian: notes on mixed race asian studies
-and others i have yet to find

1 comment:

Anne X said...

Hm. I always wondered, and probably played the game as well. I would have probably guessed Armenian, looking at you now, because I have an ambi-ethinic friend who's French and Armenian and looks alot like you. Either way, whatever you are, it looks good on you!